Archive | September, 2011

Photo Essay: Escape the Crowds – Join the Nudists

Es Ram, Formentera (Spain)

There’s little as discouraging as it is to be on a beautiful island, 35 degrees, a bright sky… and realizing that the beach is completely packed. Unfortunately, that’s often the case in Europe’s main beach destinations (try finding a spot in St.Tropez during summer!).

Formentera was considered one of Spain’s hidden gems – only really known among the hippies during the 60s. At that time, there were around 1.300 hippies spending each summer on the island. Even though Franco’s regime threw them off the island in 1970, its culture today owes a lot to its hippy past.

As off the beaten track locations get more and more desirable for tourists of all kinds, Formentera is, I found, no longer characterized by paradisiac beaches with little or no people on it. Instead, its beaches are crowded with upper class fashionistas showing off the latest trends and on its still and turquoise water rest some of the largest and most luxurious yachts I’ve ever seen.

One morning, on our search for a picturesque and little known corner, we took a turn into a sand and stone way surrounded by trees on both sides. We instinctively followed a wood sign that indicated the way to Es Ram. Es Ram was nowhere to see on our simplified paper map.

While we cruised down the uneven path, we considered all possible outcomes: Were we going to end in front of a huge villa called Es Ram? Was Es Ram a hunting area? Or was there any possibility of Es Ram being the hidden beach we have been longing for?

Es Ram, Formentera (Spain)

Es Ram was, in fact, a small beach with perfect turquoise water. As we walked down the rocks, we realized that we were not on a usual beach – instead of sand, we were standing on dry seaweed!

Dry Seaweed, Es Ram, Formentera (Spain)

We turned around us, only to notice that there were less than 8 people on the beach (counting us 4 in!). The other 2 groups had taken off their clothes to soak up the sun rays and occasionally went to take a dip into the crystalline water. We climbed into the water, admiring its transparency and the rare rock formations that followed the coast line. One of us spoke out loud what each of us were thinking – isn’t this the perfect moment to experience what it feels like to swim naked in the sea?

Water in Es Ram, Formentera, Spain

We felt our adrenaline rise as we hesitated on our decision. One after the other, we all chose to join the nudists on this one occasion – and we agreed that what we felt was relief. When we left the beach, we felt more confident and comfortable in our own skin. There was no better time than that one – four best friends, one tiny island and turquoise blue water.

Photo Essay: Swimming in Crystalline Azure Water

Crystalline Water in Formentera

I had promised more pictures and stories about my week in the tiny island on Formentera as soon as I got back to normal, and now that I‘ve recovered my computer and said goodbye to Switzerland – I thought it’s about time. Plus, I love to go through fun summer memories when it’s raining and windy outside.

Formentera’s sands and crystalline azure water are world-famousdon’t believe me? check out where Giorgio Armani or Shakira spent this summer! – which also means that most of its easy accessible beaches are really crowded. That’s when one becomes creative to find a peaceful spot to lay down and soak up some mediterranean sun. And then it hit us – we had to rent a boat and discover all those hidden gems that have no land access.

All good, but what do you do without any kind of maritime license (and ok, lets admit it, without cash to spend on renting a 10 meter sail boat to explore the island’s coastline)?

Rent a Zodiac instead!

Me on our Zodiac, Formentera

If you ever thought that a zodiac would only be good enough to take you from your yacht to the beach and back, then you’re wrong. You should never underestimate the power of a zodiac – this smaller version of a speed boat took us all the way from the port of Formentera to the south of the island and back up all the way north to S’Espalmador.

About 20 minutes after leaving the port towards the south of the Island, we found a peaceful spot with crystalline blue water. We dropped the anchor and looked around us. Not more than 3 other boats were surrounding us, and there was enough distance between us to almost feel like we had the spot for ourselves.

The color of the sea was so appealing that it didn’t take us more than 3 minutes to jump into the water (part of those 3 minutes, we were trying to figure how to best jump from an inflatable boat without looking too ridiculous – what we didn’t realize was the actual ridiculous part would be trying to get back into the zodiac again). This was the first time I made use of my marine camera kit.

Crystalline Water in Formentera

Underwater in Formentera, Spain

Swimming in Crystalline Water, Formentera

Underwater in Formentera, Spain

Yeah, I still need some practice – another reason to go on beach holidays again some time soon!

Picture This: A Blue Sky in London

Blue Sky, London, September 2011

I took this picture on my first day in London, on my way to my new office. I was so excited that I hardly could sleep that night and was already wide awake at 6am. I decided to walk to work – a 50 minute power walk through Hyde Park and little streets filled with bakeries and coffee shops.

It was a beautiful welcome.

London, I had been warned, has its own microclimate; characterized by grey, foggy and/or wet days three quarters of the year. This week was just like that – grey, foggy and/or rainy. Plus windy. I know this is just the beginning, that I have yet to learn how to live with this weather; but I can already tell you now, it won’t be as easy as I had thought.

And so I’ve made a promise to myself: not to focus my thoughts on the drawbacks of english weather, but to embrace those exceptional days and just make the best out of them. After all, it’s not as if there was nothing to do in London when it rains, right?

I Eat Lausanne

Port, Lac Leman, Switzerland

I’ve read many blogs about people warning about Switzerland’s high prices. I can’t deny it – Switzerland is expensive. Food, in particular, can be 45% higher than the western European average. If you look at The Economist’s Big Mac Index, the price of a Big Mac in Switzerland is more than double of what you would pay for today in the US. Sounds crazy, huh?

But don’t let prices scare you off – Switzerland is a beautiful country, and you won’t have seen it properly until you’ve made food a part of your travel experience. Quality food remains an important part of swiss culture; and I’m not only talking about their cheese – he country has, after all, the highest number of Michelin stars per capita.

During my two years living in Lausanne, I’ve had the chance to eat my way through a big part of its cafes and restaurants (perks of living in a small city!). I was impressed by the variety in cuisine and price ranges that were available – a diversity that other larger european cities are missing.

Choosing only 5 Lausanne eateries for this post has been a very hard job. So, to make things a bit easier for me, I’ve left out those restaurants that have already received my special mention in previous occasions (you will find a list with the links to these articles at the end of the post). Also, I’ve limited my recommendations to a certain budget – it’s too easy to recommend restaurants with Michelin Stars, right?

Without further ado, here are Lausanne’s stars.

Le Citadin

Passion Fruit and Chocolate, Le Citadin, Lausanne

If you’ve always wanted to taste a plate elaborated by one of Europe’s master chefs but don’t really have the cash (or time) to go through a 10 course menu – Le Citadin is the best alternative. As high quality and sophisticated fast food corner in the center of Lausanne, it’s perfect to grab a quick but healthy snack. If you’re weak, like me, you’ll surrender to what Philippe Guignard does best – pastries. I can hear you people salivating while staring at that passion fruit and chocolate pastry up here. That’s exactly what I mean.

Holy Cow

The swiss are very proud of the quality of their meat. At first, I thought it was just national pride for internal supply (in terms of “anything swiss is better”); but in fact, swiss meat does taste really good. Then again, this shouldn’t be of any surprise – cows that eat fresh green grass and are free to walk up and down the hills will taste different to those who eat grains in a commercial farm.

Holy Cow is exactly that – a praise to high quality meat sourced in Canton Vaud. Not only the meat, but all of the ingredients of their delicious gourmet burgers are fresh, have been locally produced and are prepared right in front of you. The crew is young and lots of fun! They’re often singing in the kitchen to the sound of good rock music!

I regret not taking a picture of one of their fantastic burgers (oh Smokey…) – I could never resist to take a big bite of them as soon as they were mine!

Crêperie d’Ouchy

Crêpe Bresaola, Crêperie d'Ouchy, Lausanne (Switzerland)

You might have read previously about my love for crêpes. It’s definitely no secret. However, it was only in Lausanne where I found my love for a good crêpe bretonne. These crêpes, originally from Brittany, are many of plain buckwheat flour, instead of white wheat flour; which makes them darker and crispy.

Crêperie d’Ouchy is charming because of its proximity to the lake. On a nice afternoon, one can sit on the terrace drinking sider while engaging into one of my favorite activities – people watching. If, instead, you’re more of a mountain person, you better go to Crêperie La Chandeleur, not far from Lausanne’s Cathedral. It’s more familiar and cozy, all decorated in wood – just like a mountain hut! It also has my very favorite crêpe over all, made of fresh cheese and spinach!

Cafe Romand

In the land of fondues and raclettes, it’s difficult to choose one restaurant based on this plate. Actually, for the real and complete winter and cheese experience, I’d rather suggest to take a train ride up to a mountain, walk in the snow and then get inside a wooden hut with a fire place and order a big fondue moitié-moitié.

But ok, let’s assume that you can’t just get on a train for an hour and a half to have lunch on top of a mountain – then, Cafe Romand is the nearest to sitting in one of those swiss cottages. It’s one of the city’s oldest restaurants and it is characteristic for having a very swiss flair. When entering the cafe, one is taken into a different era!

If you’re one of the tough ones – follow up with a meringue smothered in crème double de la Gruyère (double thick Gruyère cream). I could do it (you should too!).

Cafe de la Poste

Filets de Perche, Cafe de la Poste, Lutry

And to finish, my best recommendation for this regional speciality: filets de perches! I’ve mentioned this plate before – after all, it has been a regular meal during my time in Switzerland, specially during summer. Back then, I highlighted a delicious lunch I had in Chateau d’Ouchy early may and the importance of running through the menu (and its footnotes) searching for a hint on the origin of these filets. You should always look for filets de perches frais du Lac Léman (the rest, although cheaper, will only make you regret for having ordered that plate instead of, say, spaghetti bolognese).

Well, if you’re willing to pay the extra cash it takes to eat fresh fish, then I highly recommend you Cafe de la Poste. Although not literally in Lausanne, it’s only a 10-15 bus ride from the center of the city, in a beautiful little village called Lutry. This family owned business has been up and going for over 20 years and is well-known among the locals, so reservation is recommended for most of the times (even for lunch on weekdays).

Now tell me: Would you give Switzerland’s food offer a go, despite the prices?

What I Regret From My 2 Years in Switzerland

First of all – thanks a lot for all your kind comments on my Goodbye to Switzerland! I’m now partly settled in London, and will soon give signs of life in the city!

Warning: I feel like rambling, so expect this to be a long post. If you don’t feel like reading it now, you can always save it for the winter. At hope at least you’ll have a good laugh. Or even learn something! Worst case, just enjoy the pictures.

There are a few things I regret from my two years in Switzerland – like, not putting more effort on learning how to snowboard, or not going more often to the gym. Not practicing ice skating, because I didn’t dare to go by myself. Not traveling more around the country. And, also, not socializing with more swiss, but limiting myself to the expat community in the area.

But there’s one thing I regret more than anything of the above:

Not learning enough french to call myself fluent

The Reasonable Explanation.

Two years in a french speaking location, and I’m not fluent. Embarrassing? Maybe. But let me share my ridiculous excuse reasonable explanation. Before moving to Switzerland, I wasn’t too much into french. At University, I gave it a try – but there was something in its silent vowels and consonants that I found a bit fishy. I never thought I could have as much grammatical errors as I had during french class. If the teacher would have counted -0.5 points for every mistake I had made, I’m pretty sure I would have had a -20 as my final exam grade. I’m grateful that our system only allowed teachers to grade us between 1 – the best – and 6 – the worst. Management instructed them to give an overall grade to the pupil. I’m quite sure that my french “r” had something to do with me passing the subject.

And then, there was the easiness of working in an international company, in a latin-american team. I never used french at work – not even when talking to french banks. I wasn’t forced into it. Instead, I was helped out of any trouble by a swiss colleague (who also speaks spanish). Whenever I had to write a formal letter to, say, apply for an apartment or demand a housing insurance, she was there to write it for me.

After one year making my way through the french part of Switzerland with little more than 40 words, I thought it was time to give french another chance. But then there were the unreasonable course timetables in any of Lausanne’s academies, which seemed to assume that those who want to learn french are anything but full-time employees.My variable work schedule with the increasing number of business travels didn’t go well with pricey regular group lessons.

That was when I discovered the language courses by Rosetta Stone, and practiced whenever I had time to do so. Ok, maybe not whenever I had time – as I had to share this time with blogging, traveling and socializing; but I did practice al least for one and a half hours twice a week from February until July 2011 – 6 fruitful months.

I did improve from my 30 words vocabulary during these two years (specially when I started using Rosetta Stone) – but by no means can I call myself fluent in french. Not even intermediate.

Why I regret it (so much).

View from Lausanne, Switzerland

There’s a very simple reason for french being on the top of my biggest regrets – I don’t have the verbal capacity to defend myself when I was attacked in french. Even at the end of my stay, I could form sentences that made sense and expressed my desire or needs – but I couldn’t find the words that would help me out in a confrontation.

Picture this. The day before I left my apartment, a moving company was taking down and wrapping up my furniture and packing all of my belongings into big boxes that, at the end of the day, would take a ride all the way to the UK. I had to be there all the time – in case they needed access to the basement or doubted of whether I wanted to take an item with me or could live without it for 19 days. The door to my apartment was wide open.

I was sitting outside on the balcony, trying not to disturb their efficiency (and accidentally tanning a tiny little bit), when I heard a female voice in my living room.

I went inside expecting to find the local representative of my relocation agency. Or, at most, someone from my current real estate agency, who wanted to keep an eye on what I was doing. Instead, I found a mid-aged lady followed by an older woman with a walking stick inspecting my apartment.

Me: “Excuse me, can I help you?” Great Start. There are 2 strangers in my apartment and all I can ask them is if I can help them – maybe a cup of tea?
Lady: “Oh, I believe you are the agent. Nice to meet you!” and reaches out her refined hand
Me: “Oh, no. I live here. This is my apartment. What do you want?”
Lady: “I saw an announcement to rent this apartment in the internet, called the agent (Bernard Nicod), who told me to come by and take a look. He even gave me the code for the entry door, downstairs. I’m looking for an apartment for my mother, you see.”
Me: “That’s not possible. This apartment is already rented. I personally searched for the next tenant. He signed the contract about 2 months ago.”
Lady: smiles and says “Well, you don’t decide on this but the agent does” while she walked outside to my terrace, “Oh look! What a pretty view.”
Me: “Madame, this apartment is not in the market. Would you please leave my private property?” Wow. Just so much power and conviction in those words. I’d feel threatened.
Lady: “I demand to see this apartment!”
Me: “Excuse me?! You are in private property and you can’t demand anything. I demand you leave my apartment.” There. I just remember the french word for demand.
Lady: “It was the agency who sent me here. This is none of your business!” Wow. So now I don’t even have rights in my own house.
Me: “Bernard Nicod are not the agent of this aparment”
Lady: “Yes they are.”

I considered grabbing her arm and dragging her out. Instead, I called my real estate agency and asked them to talk with the crazy woman who wouldn’t leave my apartment.

I knew I was right. I knew she was completely wrong. And still, I couldn’t make my point with enough conviction to make her leave ashamed and with her tail between her legs.

The Final Take.

Crêpe in Lausanne, Switzerland

So, after the lady had spoken during 10 minutes on my phone, with my real estate agent and my anger kept escalating soon reaching uncontrollable levels, I had the same thought bouncing in my head - Language courses should have a master class in biting back. After all – isn’t it us, the expats struggling with local language, that are so often taken advantage of? I bet that lady would have left my apartment in less than a minute if this had happened to me in Spain.

It’s language dominance what gives some people power and this feeling of being right against a foreigner. There are few things more frustrating than precisely that – understand the rude attitude but being unable to respond adequately to it.

And so I made a decision: it doesn’t matter if I am not in a french speaking country any more, I will still continue my course with Rosetta Stone. Hopefully, after completing all five levels and with a little help from some french-speaking friends, I’ll be ready to confront anyone who wants to fool me for being a foreigner (oh, and maybe I could also use it to chat up some french guys!).

Do you have any regrets from your life abroad? Tell me about it!